High School Israel Trips Regain Foothold
by Ramie Arian
In the midst of the recent Jewish Agency board meetings, a small but significant policy shift was announced, one that was barely reported in the media, but which may produce a significant change in the way in which young American Jews experience Israel.
This news was the announcement of a grant of $1 million to Lapid, to complement Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) support of Birthright and MASA, in order to determine how to structure what will eventually be a program budgeted at $20 million per year.
Given that most folks have never heard of Lapid, and given that $1 million is a very small grant in the context of JAFI’s budget, it is hardly surprising that the story garnered little notice. So, what’s it about, and why might it be important? Here’s the background.
Until the advent of Birthright, a decade and more ago, the most common way for a young American to visit Israel was during the high school years, on an educational teen tour sponsored by one of the long-standing Jewish youth movements or organizations. Such tours were (and continue to be) sponsored by the youth affiliates of the major synagogue movements, like USY (Conservative), NFTY (Reform), and NCSY (Orthodox), and by the Zionist youth movements like Young Judaea and Habonim Dror, among other sponsors. Most were summer programs of 5 weeks’ duration or more, though some – notably those sponsored by the Alexander Muss High School in Israel – took place as well during the school year. Prior to the era of Birthright, some of these were relatively large operations: in 1999, NFTY and Young Judaea each boasted 1200-1500 summer Israel participants.
The sponsors of these programs worried that competition from Birthright would decimate registration for their summer tours. Birthright’s sponsors assured them in the early years that Birthright’s intent was not to eclipse these longer programs, which had the luxury of providing a fuller, deeper experience of Israel (they were, after all, 5 weeks or more in duration, compared to Birthright’s 10 days), but rather to catch “stragglers” who had missed the opportunity to visit Israel during the high school years. Yet the fears of the high school trip sponsors proved well-founded. Registration for high school programs in Israel collapsed during the Second Intifada, and with Birthright newly in the marketplace, it did not recover when the Intifada ended.
Today, registration for the summer high school programs of most trip sponsors stands at only 25-35% of what it was before Birthright was created.
The high school trip sponsors are not surprised. Birthright is, after all, a totally subsidized program, paid for by the Jewish Agency (funded by Federation contributions), the Government of Israel, and a consortium of private philanthropists. Birthright programs are totally free to participants. MASA, the umbrella which partially subsidizes tuition for long-term (semester-length or longer) Israel programs, is similarly funded. It is difficult today for parents of a 16-year-old to justify paying the tuition – more than $5,000 – for a summer high school program in Israel for their daughter, when they know that they could wait two years, and send her on Birthright for free. Even though Birthright is a much shorter, presumably more superficial experience of Israel, the lure of “free” in the marketplace is hard to beat.
Enter Lapid. In 2008, the sponsors of many high school Israel programs formed a consortium with the purpose of gaining for their programs the same recognition and level of support from the central agencies of the Jewish people – JAFI and the Government of Israel – that Birthright and MASA enjoy. Lapid today has 27 member organizations, including both non-profit and for-profit sponsors of high school trips to Israel.
With last month’s announcement of JAFI funding for Lapid, a large first step has been taken in accomplishing the organizers’ goal. While the guidelines have not yet been worked out, it appears that the new program will partially level the playing field, by providing (when the program is eventually fully operational) a subsidy of $1,000 per participant, which should be passed along by the trip organizers to participants and their parents, in the form of lower tuition for their programs.
Lapid members expect that these newly lower tuitions will energize demand for their high school programs. Their goal is to increase registration for longer, high school programs by almost 50% within a few years, from its current aggregate level of 14,000 participants per year to 20,000.
Last month’s announcement represents a major accomplishment for Lapid. Should its goals be achieved, it will be a major step in restoring high school programs as one of the most important ways available for young people to have a serious, in-depth, first experience of Israel.
Ramie Arian is a consultant who works with agencies concerned with building Jewish identity and commitment, such as Israel trip sponsors, Jewish summer camps and youth movements. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.